Politics & Policy

The COVID-19 Downplayers and Doomsayers

A member of the medical personnel wearing a protective face mask is seen outside the Spedali Civili Hospital in Brescia, Italy, March 13, 2020. (Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters)
Neither camp has been entirely responsible in its musings about the virus. But that doesn’t mean one side won’t turn out to have been closer to the truth.

Perhaps in a few months, after COVID-19 and the government response to it are done with their work on us, a kind of collective amnesty will be given for the ignorant, ill-informed, or extreme things that prominent people said about it. Things like, “This is nonsense, it’s just the flu,” and, “You’re crashing the economy for nothing” on one hand, and, “Well, get out of my way, I’m preparing for the apocalypse” on the other. These two sides — call them the downplayers and the doomsayers — have probably been driving each other to more extreme versions of the worldviews their media diets and intuitions would already lead them to.

Right now, as schools and sporting events and bars and restaurants close, as distressing reports from Italy come over the wire and toilet paper goes out of stock, the downplayers look like fools and potential menaces to public health. Donald Trump is the downplayer-in-chief, and he is already suffering for his demonstrably false statements about the virus. Trump said that U.S. cases were under control, and that they could go down from 15 to zero. “It will go away” he promised. “One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear,” he said, contemplating the ructions in a market that has since had worse days. “Anybody that wants a test for coronavirus can get one,” he guaranteed at a time when doctors across the country were openly expressing their frustration at not being able to test even symptomatic patients. People coming off planes from affected countries were being tested, he assured the public when in fact they weren’t. In the weeks and months to come, his downplayer mindset could well haunt his reelection bid and become his legacy.

Trump isn’t alone, of course. In fact, he is repeating claims from mainstream outlets that were au courant about a month ago. Back then, media outlets were claiming that popular fear of coronavirus was worse than the disease itself, and possibly driving anti-Asian animus. They repeated over and over that the seasonal flu kills more people each year, without mentioning that coronavirus may be 20 times as lethal and twice as transmissible, requiring heroic exertions to contain. Nor did they mention that the virus results in a greater rate of hospitalization.

Following Trump’s lead, the talk-radio right and a few personalities on Fox News have fed their audience disinformation as the pandemic unfolds. Rush Limbaugh explained to his millions of listeners last week that “all of this panic is just not warranted” because “this virus is the common cold.” “Why do you think this is ‘COVID-19’?” He asked. “This is the 19th coronavirus. They’re not uncommon.” Here, too, he was wrong. The 19 refers to the year in which this new virus originated.

On Fox and Friends, the president’s Evangelical ally, Jerry Falwell Jr., emphasized that coronavirus might be a plot to hurt Trump. He said “impeachment didn’t work” so “this is their next attempt to get Trump.” Then, after saying it was overhyped, he suggested that perhaps this was a “Christmas present” from the presumably aggrieved North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. One White House official used the word “hoax” in relation to the virus, a charge that was picked up by Sean Hannity, who accused the media of using “irresponsible, over-the-top rhetoric” to try to “bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.”

As much as I remain in the alarmed camp, Hannity isn’t entirely wrong that there is some “over-the-top rhetoric” out there. Five thousand people have died from coronavirus, out of a total confirmed population of roughly 137,000 sufferers. China seems to have gotten beyond the crisis point weeks ago. South Korea has accomplished the same, with only 66 deaths over a population of nearly 8,000 confirmed cases. The situation is much more serious in Europe, where Italy still has not gotten its outbreak under control and has seen nearly one in every 15 confirmed cases die over a very quick period.

But whereas China held the line well below 100,000 infections, European leaders are telling the public that millions will be infected. German chancellor Angela Merkel, informed by her public-health authorities, chillingly announced that up to 58 million Germans, fully 70 percent of the country’s population, could contract the coronavirus. If fatality rates followed anything like those in Italy, that could mean well over a million deaths. Medical officials in the United States have offered similarly dire warnings.

Unless Western governments plan to do nothing to stop spread of this disease in the hopes of culling their native elderly populations — a conspiracy theory I’m entertaining during these late, anxious nights more than I ought to be — then such projections of scores of millions infected are just as irresponsible as Trump’s predictions that the disease will miraculously disappear. They’re based on a model of exponential spread of the disease, one that has met no policy resistance from governments or social resistance from populations. But that’s not an accurate picture of human or governmental behavior. Governments respond to such crises, and so do societies. American “social distancing” and changes to hygienic norms started picking up speed once Italy’s extraordinary measures were reported, and have shown no signs of slowing down.

The pattern of response in Wuhan began with a mixture of social and governmental denial and bumbling. That was followed by a brief and frightening period in which hospitals were overwhelmed and mortality rates spiked, just as we’re now seeing in Italy. But as the crisis has dawned on societies elsewhere — as alarm at the Chinese and Italian experiences of the disease has spread abroad — we’ve seen those societies’ populations buy into the social distancing, cleaning, and compliance that allows health institutions to get ahead of the disease. South Korea, for example, moved to this buy-in period quickly, and seems to be getting on the other side of the disease faster as a result. The American private sector is already responding with a shocking speed in some cases to close large institutions and events.

Humanity retains its resiliency and its survival instinct. One of the reasons we should reject the worst-case predictions of doom, revolution, upheaval, and a society forever changed is that so many of our friends, families, celebrities, and politicians are still engaging in the normal partisan and cultural warfare. Mutual recrimination and umbrage is like a security blanket we are reaching for in a time of distress. And it’s a sign of our continuing investment in the idea that the near-term future won’t look that different from the past.

There may be tough days ahead, and individual tragedies aplenty. But we’ve already seen effective responses to this virus in very different societies, using the tools available to governments that have wildly different structures, strengths, and weaknesses. America is likely to produce such a response, too. And if we do even half as well as the Chinese or the South Koreans, the rosier predictions of the downplayers could turn out in retrospect to be closer to the truth than those of the doomsayers.

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